October 13, 2011

Review: Pearl Jam Twenty

In the wake of such a whirlwind of emotions - with me getting married and having a guys weekend right after - I figured now would be a good as time as any to write a review for the Cameron Crowe documentary PJ20.

Here in Dallas where I live, we occasionally get the opportunity to see cult indie films that aren't shown across the U.S.  We have our own little Dallas Art and Film Festival once a year, with a few B and C actors showing up in Big D to mark the occasion.  I won't go as far to say that Dallas is above the Austin, Texas area as far as "cult" status, but I'd say we're a close second.

Dallas originally had two showings planned for Pearl Jam Twenty on Sept. 20th of this year.  With word quickly spreading, the two showings quickly sold out within hours.  I being the idiot (or good future husband - whichever way you want to look at it) I am, chose to hold off on purchasing tickets because of our wedding two days later.  We would be so wrapped up in planning and preparation of leaving town, packing, and all the things that go into planning a small intimate wedding that we wouldn't be able to get away to go see the documentary.  I held off, and the tickets sold out.

Weeks passed, and I eventually got married as planned on Sept. 24th in Hot Springs, Arkansas to my best friend and companion Jen.  I won't bore you with details and I won't shove pictures down your throat, but know it was a cool time and a helluvalot of fun.

So jump forward a week or so, and things have gotten back to normal (as normal as they can be with me).  I continue to get weekly newsletters from the local theaters and venues in Dallas showcasing new acts and shows that might interest me.  Usually I skim over them, don't really see a name I "have to see" and move on.  But this one part in particular caught my eye and drew my attention.  It read "Pearl Jam: Twenty" with a link and a little bio on the movie.  Cool.  So they put a few reviews in there from their blog.

I click through the link to read about the awesome experience other people had on the 20th showing and my draw drops.  The Magnolia theater in Dallas is showing an encore performance of Pearl Jam Twenty for one night only, one show only.  And what's that?  Tickets are still available?  The next minute or two was a dream sequence:  Wallet out.  Card out.  Numbers punched.  Two tickets selected.  Purchase.  Done.

Even with the knowledge that the PJ20 high-def blu-ray was to be released a week or so later on Oct. 25th, I still wanted to see the movie in a theater setting with like minded Pearl Jam fans.

What happened as the lights began to dim and the movie began to play I will never know.  It was almost an out of body experience for me; being whisked away to Verona, Italy for Release in 2006, to the epic rendition of Crown of Thorns at the Las Vegas 10 year Pearl Jam anniversary show.  I wasn't in a movie theater with 50 other fans, I was in the audience.  I was singing Better Man with thousands of other people TO Eddie Vedder as we lit lighters in Madison Square Garden.  It was an other-worldly experience for me, but I will try to put this into words.

First off, Pearl Jam as a group is on a completely other level for me.  There's Pearl Jam, and then there's every other band (even the Who come in as a close second).  So I'm probably not the best person in the world to get an even keeled review of this documentary, but I will try to give my account and base the other off what my wife said as we were driving home.

The documentary starts off in the mid-80's, with glam rock, arena rock, and hair metal in charge in the music industry.  Woven from the same cloth, the entrancing Andy Wood of Mother Love Bone dies from an overdose.  With the close-knit Seattle scene losing one of it's brethren, the core group of Mother Love Bone and Cornell form Temple of the Dog as a tribute to their lost comrade.  It is here that Cameron Crowe is at his finest, showing us the human elements of each band member, and how Andy's death affected each of them.  We get to see the band members as human beings, going from boisterous, playful 20-somethings to morose, sorrowful adults having to deal with the loss of a close friend.  It's an emotional turn that happens relatively soon in the movie, but sets the groundwork for everything that was to come later.

After the passing of Andy Wood, Stone Gossard and Mike McCready begin to jam, eventually taking in Jeff Ament, longtime friend of Stone.  Matt Cameron is brought on board to lay down drums and they lay down the Momma-Son trilogy of songs (Alive, Footsteps, and Once).  It eventually gets into the hands of San Diego surfer Eddie Vedder, who lays down vocals over the tape after surfing one day.

The next section shows the band's rise to stardom, their standoffish approach to the media at the time, and their lack of press after Ten.  Crowe does a great job showing us and taking us on a rollercoaster ride of Pearl Jam fandom.  From the spawning of Mother Love Bone, to the stuttering because of the death of Andy Wood, to the rise of Pearl Jam, grunge, and then the emotional train wreck that is the Roskilde Festival, where 9 fans were killed during the beginning parts of the Pearl Jam set, Crowe touches everything in the Pearl Jam catalog.

After we see Pearl Jam hit hits pinnacle of success around the release of the Vs. album, we think that we'll just coast on over the third and fourth albums Vitalogy and No Code, with a resurgence of popularity later with the album Yield.  This is where the documentary shines, as it is able to touch on the very delicate subject of power struggles within a band.  And not just any band:  Pearl Jam.  In the early years, the power came from the songwriting techniques of Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament.  Later on in the bands lifecycle, Eddie Vedder began to hit his stride as a songwriter and brought a multitude of finished songs with accompanying lyrics to the table, instead of bringing forth a simple guitar lick that was fun to play and needed to be expanded upon (like some of the bandmates).  It was just easier at the time to perfect and fine tune a song with all of the pieces there, instead of spending more time in the studio hashing out the unfinished jams.  It's here that Vitalogy and No Code come off as experimental, hard to listen to, and could come across as somewhat lazy.  These are not bad records by any means, but need to be slowly taken in by the listener, something most are not accustomed to as we've had with hits like "Even Flow" and "Daughter".

Coming in at 1 hour and 49 minutes, it's a lot of Pearl Jam music and information to soak in.  At times it plays like a Behind the Music: Pearl Jam episode, interweaving interview footage from the band in between concert footage as it tells the story.  I loved the fact that it wasn't just a "here's a Pearl Jam concert" approach either.  This documentary does a great job of getting the right interview audio piece for the music, and magically blends it together seamlessly.   For some casual fans who only like a few of the bigger more well known songs, I still think it's a must see movie.  It's an incredibly well done documentary, pieced together by hours and hours of archival footage collected by Crowe, roadies, friends, family, and band mates.  I have to say, to find, source, and include all of this material over 20 years is an incredible feat.  Crowe and crew do it, and do an excellent job.  I bow down to thee.

Pearl Jam Twenty tells an incredibly great story of one of the greatest American bands still left today making music after twenty years.  If you are a Pearl Jam fanatic like me, you should buy either the blu-ray or DVD come Oct. 25th.  It's well worth the price alone for the movie, but no doubt there will be some killer bonus features.

I'm still pumped that I got to see Pearl Jam Twenty on the big screen, with the massive surround sound volume pumping out tunes and being in the intimate setting of a movie theater.  The documentary is able to pull you in as soon as it starts with it's low-fi approach, but really takes over once they get into the newer "HD" era, with better sound quality, better video quality, and a more in-your-face shooting style.  This is where you break down the wall of the theater and begin to believe that you are there, among the crowd, and amongst the waves.

Like I said before, my wife loved it and thought it was a really good movie.  She's not a hardcore Pearl Jam fan at all, only liking a few of the famous tracks I've played for her.  Throw in the fact that she's an antsy movie watcher that either needs to check the time on her phone during the movie, or while we're home watching will get up and go do something for a bit and come back, showcases even more how good this documentary is.  She didn't do any of those things during Pearl Jam Twenty.  So yeah, I guess that's what I'm basing my movie review on, is that my ADD wife could actually sit still, not fidget, and watch PJ20 and then afterword say how much she loved it.

It's incredible.  From the rise of the Seattle scene, Green River, Mother Love Bone, the fall of Andrew Wood, the slow rise of Temple of the Dog and then into Pearl Jam, this documentary takes you on an epic ride through Pearl Jam-ville.  Sure, there are a few sorrowful moments like Roskilde and Eddie Vedder's stalker, but it all adds up to an incredible ride.  One I can't wait to take again.

So with my personal take and review going on into the stratosphere, I wanted to say a few thank you's and sign off.

Thank you to Cameron Crowe, Kelly Curtis, and all of the people who collected and kept all of those Pearl Jam trinkets, ticket stubs, demo tapes, CD's and posters.  You made this awesome documentary experience possible, and I can't wait to watch it again.

Thank you to the Magnolia theater in Dallas.  Thank you for adding an encore show.  I feel you did that just for me.  "What?  Justin wasn't able to see Pearl Jam Twenty because of a wedding?  Shit!  Add another show for him."

And finally, thank you to Pearl Jam.  Thank you for helping me go through one of the hardest things I've ever had to tackle on my own.  You've been there every emotional step of the way.  Songs like "Indifference" and "Porch" were played on my way to my new school senior year every morning.  Songs like "Yellow Ledbetter" were played to look back at all of the great memories my friends and I shared.  And thanks especially for releasing the two concerts I attended in bootleg CD form (August 15, 2000 in Memphis at the Pyramid with my buddies, and July 17, 2005 in Little Rock, Arkansas before I drove 14 hours to Savannah to see my friend Tim).  I will forever have those two bootlegs and can always go back and listen to them, remember how young I was then, and relive both of those incredible nights. And also, thank you for the song "Just Breathe".  No matter where I am and how I hear that song, it will always makes me think of my new wife Jen, and how she loves that song and what she means to me.

Thank you.

Many years of success from this lifelong fan.